Fellowship Archive

The George Eliot Fellowship


George Eliot and her women characters

I want to talk this afternoon about George Eliot – or Mary Ann Evans, for that was her real name. She was, I think, above everything else sincere; what she believed she believed intensely, everything she did she did whole heartedly; there were no half measures about Mary Ann Evans, and all her life she had the courage of her convictions.

It is this sincerity that makes her characters seem so real; they are real – they are all drawn from life, founded on people she herself knew and loved, and never – to please public or publisher – would she alter one word. She felt what she had written was the truth as she saw it, to alter it would be false to her conception. I don’t think she was capable of reacting in any other way.

Mary Ann was born six months before* Queen Victoria. She had an older brother and sister, and when her mother died her father remarried**. This stepmother was the original of many of the countrywomen in her novels. Her father was a farmer and agent and all her early life was spent on a farm, but she was lucky in that she received a very good education at a time when that was, for a woman, unusual and from a very early age she showed amazing intelligence. When she was only 8 she started reading one of Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley novels. It was returned long before Mary Ann had finished it and – for her own amusement – she rewrote the whole of the rest of the novel as she thought it might have been. This was her sole attempt at fiction until much later in life.***

When Mary Ann was 16 her stepmother**** died and she was called upon to give up her studies and run the house. This she did efficiently; she ran the house, overlooked and catered for the outside workers and superintended the dairy. It was her proud boast in later’ 1ife that her right hand was larger than her left because of all the butter-churning and cheese making she had. done.  She must have had tremendous energy because she arranged to continue studying with a tutor from a nearby town. With him she studied philosophy, mathematics, Latin, French, German, Italian and Hebrew. She was also a brilliant pianist and played to her father every evening.

Life with father, however, did not always run smoothly. Perhaps Mary Ann suffered a little from mental indigestion, for through reading religious works she began to question all she had hitherto believed in. To a girl of her temperament there was only one course. One Sunday when Father summoned her to accompany him to church Mary Ann dropped her bombshell. She had lost her faith and could never enter church again. Father was of course horrified, he declared that it was her plain duty to go to church, it was unthinkable that he should be expected to go without her. Go she must or leave his house.

Mary Ann left his house and went to her brother, Isaac, who was now married. She had a very deep devotion for this brother, of which she writes most beautifully in The Mill on the Floss, and he had more influence on her than any other person.

Perhaps it was because of this particular problem of religion that MA’s first novels were all about clergymen. She planned to write seven, all about clergymen in different walks of life. The first was The sad Fortunes of the Reverend Amos Barton and concerned a clergyman in a village. It deals with his problems with the parishioners and the difficulty of bringing up a family of six on his meagre income. Amos Barton has a delightful wife who smooths his path at every turn and is beloved by everyone, and the parishioners are al1 delightful1y drawn; but I would like to introduce you this afternoon to the Countess. She is rather a different type and well known to us all today. She is always going to do wonderful things, she knows all the right people and is  always about to perform miracles for Amos, who is impressed by her.  All she ever does do, however, is descend on the Vicarage for a long stay and completely upset the domestic arrangement; she has outstayed her welcome long before she packs her trunk and departs. She arrives something like this –

“Ah, Milly, my dear, how delightful, and Mr. Barton, how good it is to see you. Oh, I am in such trouble, how shall I tell you? I am the most wretched woman. To be deceived by a brother to whom I have been so devoted—to see him degrading himself—giving himself utterly to the dogs! It is Edmund, my dear, He is going to be married—to marry my own maid, that deceitful Alice, to whom I have been the most indulgent mistress. Did you ever hear of anything so disgraceful? so mortifying? so disreputable? And he never even told me of it! he had not even the grace to do that. I went into the dining-room suddenly and found him kissing her—disgusting at his time of life, is it not?—and when I reproved her for allowing such liberties, she turned round saucily, and said she was engaged to be married to my brother, and she saw no shame in allowing him to kiss her. Edmund is a miserable coward, you know, and looked frightened; but when she asked him to say whether it was not so, he tried to summon up courage and say yes. I left the room in disgust, and this morning I have been questioning Edmund, and find that he is bent on marrying this woman, and that he has been putting off telling me—because he was ashamed of himself, I suppose. I couldn’t possibly stay in the house after this, with my own maid turned mistress. And now, Milly, I am come to throw myself on your charity for a week or two. I know you will take me in. And I will take the opportunity of reading some of dear Mr. Barton’s sermons, you should really get them published Mr. Barton. I could send a copy to the Dean of Radborough. I was a special favourite of his, and you can’t think what sweet things he used to say to me. I shall not resist the temptation to write to him while I am here and tell him how he ought to dispose of the next vacant living in his gift. Ah, tea, how delightful, my dear, / / oh horror, tell the maid to come directly and rub Mrs Barton’s dress, but there, you are such a saint, you don’t mind about these things I know. Just the same sort of thing happened to me at the Princess’s one day, on a pink satin, I was in an agony. But you are so indifferent to dress and well you may be. It is you who make the dress pretty and not the dress that makes you pretty.”

No one cou1d write 1ike that without a sense of humour; but it was not discernible in the young girl who so solemnly defied her father. Mary Ann did return home, prevailed upon by her brother to keep her opinion to herself and do her duty by her father. Soon after this the farm was sold and the family removed to London^ and Mary Ann started writing in earnest; not fiction, that seems never to have occurred to her, but as a Journalist, translator and finally, as assistant at the Westminster Review. She made friends with some people called Bray, who held meetings at their house for all the most famous literary people of their day and here Mary Ann met all the famous Victorians – Herbert Spencer, Trollope, Meredith, Doctor Congreve, Burne Jones, Rosetti, Tennyson and Browning. Her opinions were listened to with respect by all these people and she was at this time very happy. She did have one rather unusual adventure. Mr. Bray was, among other things a noted phrenologist – that is, he studied the bumps on people’s heads in relation to their brain power and at this time he was behaving very strangely towards Mary Ann. He seemed always about to ask her something and never quite to get to the point. She records in her diary her uneasiness about this. She was equally fond of Mrs. Bray, and feared that this friendship was about to be broken.

She need not have worried; when Charles Bray did come to the point it was her head, not her heart he wanted. He had arranged a meeting of all the most famous phrenologists in Europe. Would Mary Ann – who was known to have a most exceptional brain – provide a living example? Would she have her hair cut off and submit her head to the gaze of these learned gentlemen in the cause of Scientific research?

Mary Ann had a mass of thick dark hair, it was her one beauty; but she had too a thirst for knowledge and she consented. On the day of the meeting she presented a bald and shaven skull to the assembled phrenologists and it was revealed as smooth as a billiard ball – not one tiny hillock on the whole shining surface. I have not been able to discover what – if anything – this meant, but surely Mary Ann could not have considered it worth it?

During her time as Assistant Editor she met George Henry Lewes, a short, energetic little man who came from a theatrical family. He was a very clever and most entertaining person but he must have buzzed round the tall and stately Mary Ann like a 1ively little flea. Perhaps it was the attraction of opposites for they fell in love finally and forever. George Lewes was a married man, he had three school boy sons, who had been deserted by their mother, but Mary-Ann never hesitated; she threw in her lot with his and by doing so cut herself off from her family and friends. The severance, particularly from her brother, nearly broke her heart.

George Lewes and Mary Ann left London and so lost all their most remunerative work. They lived in great poverty and sat writing all day and half the night sharing a living room though each found it almost impossible to work except in solitude. They accepted hackwork of all kinds and between them contrived somehow to give all three boys a good education. Mary Ann took her responsibilities seriously and earned the life-long gratitude of these deserted boys. When they could scrape the fare together they travelled all over Europe, studying languages and historical research.

In her exile and isolation MA turned to fiction, encouraged by George Lewes who recognised her great gift from the start. Perhaps it was homesickness which caused her to turn at once to the scenes and people of the countryside, but it is of them she wrote, so beautifully that her books were an instant success and she was well paid for everything she wrote. The Mill on the Floss is one of her best-known books. In it she writes of her childhood and her love for her brother and describes the feelings of a small sister when an elder brother goes to school and begins to find friends of his own. The two children have an improvident father, a rather feckless mother and a family of disapproving aunts, who lend money with the worst grace in the world and throw in a lot of unwanted advice. Poor Mrs Tulliver has to bear the brunt of being her sisters’ poor relation and to put up with her husband’s improvident ways, and finds life a little difficult in consequence.

Here she is coping with the news, that she is to have an unexpected guest.

“There’s no woman, Mr. Tulliver, as strives more in the house than I do, and you can tell your friend, Mr. Tulliver, that all the bed hangings were taken down at scouring time this lady day, and there’s my elder flower wine I’ve made – beautiful – and my pies, that are fit to show with any housekeeper. For you may be sure that as he’s a bachelor he’ll have nought but a housekeeper to fend for him, and I’ve no opinion of housekeepers, Mr. Tulliver. There was my brother, as is dead and gone, had a housekeeper once, Scott her name was, and she took half the feathers  out o’ the best bed and packed ‘em up and sent ‘em away and its unknown the linen she made away with, and I’m sure my linens so in order as if I was to die tomorrow, I shouldn’t be ashamed, and I’ve put the sheets out for the best bed and Kezia’s got ‘em hanging by the fire. They’re aren’t the best sheets, Mr. Tulliver, but they’re good enough for any bachelor to sleep in, be he who he may, as for them best sheets I should repent buying them, only they’ll do to lay us out in, an if you were to die tomorrow, Mr. Tulliver, they’re mangled beautiful and all ready and smell of lavender as it ‘ud be a pleasure to be laid out in ‘em, and they lie at  the left hand corner of the big oak chest at the back not as I should trust anybody else to look ‘em out for you but myself.”

Here by way of contrast is Aunt Glegg, Mrs. Tulliver’s eldest sister, having breakfast with her husband after a quarrel with the Tullivers over money. Aunt Glegg knows quite well she is in the wrong, but she is not going to admit it.

“Well, Mr. Glegg! it’s a poor return I get for making you the wife I’ve made you all these years. If this is the way I’m to be treated, I’d better ha’ known it before my poor father died, and then, when I’d wanted a home, I should ha’ gone elsewhere, as the choice was offered me. I’m sorry for you, Mr. Glegg, I’m sorry for you. There’s husbands in the world, as ‘ud have known how to do something different to siding with everybody else against their own wives. Perhaps I’m wrong and you can teach me better. But I’ve allays heard as it’s the husband’s place to stand by the wife, instead o’ rejoicing and triumphing when folks insult her. Oh, yes,            There’s ways o’ doing things worse than speaking out plain, Mr. Glegg. I’d sooner you’d tell me to my face as you make light of me, than try to make out as everybody’s in the right but me, and come to your breakfast in the morning, as I’ve hardly slept an hour this night, and sulk at me as if I was the dirt under your feet. Now            don’t lower yourself with using coarse language to me, Mr. Glegg! It makes you look very small, though you can’t see yourself. A man in your place should set an example. Here’s your tea,  Mr. Glegg, and don’t trouble yourself to thank me for it.  It’s little enough thanks I get for what I do for folks i’ this world, though there’s never a woman o’ your side o’ the family, Mr. Glegg, as is fit to stand up with me, and I’d say it if I was on my dying bed. Not but what I’ve allays conducted myself civil to your kin, and there isn’t one of ‘em can say the contrary, though my equils they aren’t, and nobody shall make me say it. You’ve made your feelings plain enough, Mr. Glegg, no doubt you were pleased when Mr. Tulliver quarrelled with me and drove me out of the house, perhaps you liked me sworn at, Mr Glegg, perhaps you was vexed not to hear more abuse and foul language poured out upon your own wife. Well, if you’re not cried shame on by the county for your treatment of me, it’s a wonder, for it’s what I can’t endure and I won’t endure. Sally, light a fire up-stairs, and put the blinds down. Mr. Glegg, you’ll please to order what you’d like for dinner. I shall have gruel.”

Once started on fiction writing Mary Ann never stopped. Her output was enormous and her one stipulation was that her identity should not be revealed. This led to a great deal of speculation in the literary world on the identity of George Eliot. Many people were convinced he was a clergyman because of the number of clergymen who appeared in her novels and the understanding shown of their life and problems, but one very popular choice was a countryman who lived in the village of Arbury where Mary Ann was born and about which she wrote a great deal in her books. To account

for his poverty the story was circulated that he was being exploited by his unscrupulous publisher, and a fund was started for him. The organisers travelled to Arbury and found the mythical author washing himself under the village pump. His complete lack of even ordinary intelligence convinced them that he was not, and never could be, George Eliot.^^

This slur on her publisher, who had always dealt with her very generously, finally convinced Mary Ann that the time had come to reveal her identity. Mr Blackwood was sent for and at an agreed signal Mary Ann got up and left the room, Mr. Blackwood was told he was at last to meet the famous author and Mary Ann returned and said simply, “I am George Eliot”. Although George Lewis. had acted throughout as her agent the truth seems to have astounded everybody and it is interesting to note  that of all the writers. Charles Dickens was the only one to guess at least part of the truth. He was convinced that George Eliot was a woman because of the tender and beautiful way she. wrote of children in her books.

There is not much else to record about Mary Ann. She soon became courted  and famous. George Lewes died and she was inconsolable, but later in life she married a younger man named John Cross whose family had been the first to open its doors to her and acclaim her for the genius she undoubtedly was. This marriage did not last long as Mary Ann died seven months later.

One of George Eliot’s well loved books is Adam Bede. This concerns Adam, a worthy village carpenter who is based on Mary Ann’s own father, and his love for Hetty, a pretty, empty-headed dairy maid, whose sad story and tragic end runs like a sombre thread through the lighter pages of the book. Adam is beloved by Dinah, a travelling Methodist preacher who finally marries him and lives happily ever after. There is a charming description of Lisbeth, Adam’s mother, a type we think we have all met in real life. Of her George Eliot says:

 “If Solomon was as wise as he was reputed to be I feel sure that when he compared a contentious woman to a continual dropping on a very rainy day, he had not a vixen in his eye, depend upon it he meant a good creature, who had no joy but in the happiness of the loved ones, whom she contrived to make uncomfortable by putting all titbits for them, and spending nothing on herself. Such a woman as Lisbeth, at once patient and complaining, self-renouncing and exacting, brooding the livelong day over what happened yesterday, and what is likely to happen tomorrow, and crying very readily both at the good and the evil.”

Here she is, talking to her son, Adam – who by the way is a most dutiful son and has at this time shown no desire to get married.

“Eh, my lad, my lad, thee’st got nobody now but thy old mother to torment thee, and be a burden to thee. Thy poor feyther ull neer anger thee no more, and thy mother may as well go after him – the sooner the better – for I’m no good to nobody now. One old coat ull do to patch another, but it’s good for nought else. I know thee couldst do better without me, for thee couldst go where thee likdst and marry them as thee likst, but I doona want to say thee nay, let thee bring home who thee wus, I’d neer open my leps to find fault for when folks is old and no use they may think theirselves well off to get bite and sup tho they’d to swallow ill words wi’t. Thee’st like to have a wife to mend thy clothes and set thy victuals better nor they old mother and if theest set thy heart on a lass as ull bring thee nought and waste all when thee mightst had them as ud make a man of thee, I’ll say nought, but if they father ud lived hed neer ha wanted me to go to make room for another, for he cold no more ha done  without me than one side of the scissors can do without the other. Aye, now they feyther’s dead and drownded I’m no better nor an old haft when the blade’s gone.”

A very different type of woman is Mrs. Poyser, Hetty’s aunt, founded on Mary Ann’ s stepmother**** and a most capable woman. She oversees the farm and dairy, brings up her family in the way they should go. She never stops knitting for a moment, grey worsted socks grow under her fingers with 1ightning speed and as she knits she walks, and as she walks she talks so that not a moment is wasted. I wish I could give you an account of the Poysers going to church on Sunday morning across the fields. It is entrancing – but here is the family at supper. Mr. Poyser and the children sit at table and Molly, the servant, brings in the supper ale, admonished so severely meanwhile by Mrs. Poyser that Molly holds her breath, goes crimson in the face and finally smashes the jug.

“There you go. It’s what I told you ’ud come over and over again and there’s your month’s wages gone and more to pay for that jug as I’ve had this ten year and nothing ever happened to it before. But the crockery you’ve broken since here in the house you’ve been ud make a parson swear, forgive me· for saying so. I declare with you three girls in the house I need to have twice the strength to keep you to your work. It’s like having roast meat at three fires, as soon as you’ve basted one another’s burning. If it had been a boiling out of the copper, it ud have been all the same, and you’d ha been scalded down ... You’ll do no good wi crying and making more wet to wipe up. It’s all your own wilfulness as I tell you, for there’s nobody has no call to break anything if they’ll only go the right way to work. But wooden folk need wooden things to handle, and here I must take the brown and white jug as it’s never been used three times this year and go down in the cellar myself and belike catch my death of cold and be laid up with the inflammation ... [Crash] Did anybody ever see the like? It’s them nasty glazed handles they slip in the finger like a snail. It’s all very fine for you to look and grin, Mr. Poyser, but there’s times when the crockery seems alive and flies out of your hand like a bird. Its like the glass sometimes it’ll crack as it stands. What is to be broke will be broke, for I’ve never dropped a thing in my life for the want of holding it else I should never have that crockery all these years I bought at my own wedding ... Tommy, I’ll send you to bed this minit if you don’t give over laughing.”

Mrs. Poyser is more than a match for the squire, though he, like all squires at that time, held the power almost of life and death over his tenants.  He comes to the farm to tell the Poysers that he wants to transfer them to another farm and let theirs to personal friends. He has, of course, a perfect right to do this, but Mrs. Poyser proves more than equal to the occasion.

“As for farming, it’s putting money into your pocket with your right hand and fetching it out with your left. It’s raising victuals for other folk and just getting a mouthful for yourself and your children as you go along. It’s more than flesh and blood can stand sometimes to be toiling and striving and up early and  down late and hardly sleeping a wink thinking of the cheese welling or the cow may slip her calf or the wheat may grow green again in the sheaf and at the end of the year, its like as if you’d been cooking a feast and had the smell of it for your pains. Then, sir, if I may speak, as for all I’m a woman and there s folks thinks a woman’s fool enough to stand by-and look on while men sign her soul away I’ve a right to speak for I make a quarter of the rent and save another quarter I say if Mr. Turtle’s so ready to take farms under you it’s a pity but what he should take this, an he likes to live in a house with all the plagues of Egypt in it and the cellar full of water and frogs. and toads hopping up the steps by dozens and the floors rotten and the rats and mice gnawing every bit of cheese and running over our heads as we lie in bed till we expect them to eat us up alive, as it’s a mercy they hana eat the children long ago. I should like to see if there’s another tenant besides Poyser as ‘ud put up wi’ never having a bit of repairs done till the place tumbles down and not then only wi’ begging and praying and having to pay half . They say a maggott must be born in the rotten cheese to like it.... You may run away from my words, sir, and you may go spinning underhand ways of doing us a mischief for you’ve got Old Harry for your friends tho’ nobody else is, but I tell you the truth if I’m the only one as speaks my mind there’s plenty in the same way of thinking in this parish and the next for your name’s no better than brimstone in everybody’s nose, if it isna two or three old folks as you think of saving your soul by giving them a bit of flannel and a drop of Porridge and you may be right in thinking it, it’l1 take but little to save your soul for it’ll be the smallest saving you’ve ever made wi’ all your scraping. Well. Now I’ve done it, but I’ve had my say out and I shall be the easier for it all my life. There’s no pleasure in living if you’re to be corked up for ever and only dribble your mind out like a leaky barrell. I shan’t repent saying what I think if I live to be as old as the squire; and there’s little likelihoods for it seems as it’s them as aren’t wanted here are the only folks as aren’t wanted in the other world either.”

Kay Macaulife



*           In fact Victoria was born six months before Mary Ann Evans

**         Mary Ann did not have a stepmother. Kay gets this very confused

***      Kay’s talk pre-dates Gordon Haight’s discovery of ‘Edward Neville’

****    Mother, not stepmother

^         Much confusion here. The farm was not sold, MAE and her father moved to

           Coventry in 1841, and she to London in 1850 after her father’s death

^^      Some confusion here over Joseph Liggins and place names

gef sq 100

The George Eliot Fellowship